How the UK’s broadband numbers stack up, or not
BT published its numbers for 2011 this week. It revealed that its fibre “passes” 10 million homes. Of those, some 550,00 have subscribed to its Infinity VDSL fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) service.
BT says it added 589,000 retail broadband customers. It claims this is 54% of the net additions of 1,085,000, and took its retail broadband customer base to around 6.3m, up 10% in the year. Ofcom’s Communications Market Report, published in August 2011, said, “More than two-thirds (67%) of households have a fixed broadband connection and 17% have a mobile broadband (dongle) connection.” That’s about 20 million homes, which puts BT’s share of the fixed broadband market at around 32%.
Despite doubling the network frequency in the local loop, which should have pushed its top download speeds from 40Mbps to 80Mbps, BT did not refer to it in its report. Nor does it respond substantively to questions about the increase in speed actually experienced by customers.
The best indication of what customers might expect comes from Digital Region, the South Yorkshire wholesale broadband provider that is reportedly fighting for its financial existence due to earlier technology problems and a lack of customers. Digital Regional hired BT and Thales to provide its dedicated VDSL FTTC infrastructure. (This was an unhappy experience for reasons that we shan’t go into here.)
In early April, just after BT’s official speed upgrade, one of its resellers, the ISP Origin, provided its upload and download speeds to Thinkbroadband. The graph shows clearly how speed degrades with distance from the street cabinet.
The graph is not a smooth line because lots of things affect the user experience. They include distance to the cabinet, quality of the metal path (not every line is good quality copper), congestion on the link between the cabinet and the exchange, internal wiring in the customer premises, whether the modem or router is directly connected to the wall plug, whether the user is using Wi-Fi to connect, etc. The speed experienced by any individual is also increasingly affected by how many people in the premises are trying to connect at the same time, the so-called multiscreen syndrome.
The graph shows that BT may be underselling its VDSL technology by claiming a top download speed of “up to” 80Mbps. The Origin figures suggest that anyone living within 500m of their street cabinet should get an 80/20Mbps download/upload service, and anyone closer in should do better. That is if they, like Origin, have a dedicated rather than a shared service.
As Origin puts on its website, “BT’s cabinets are shared between all BT customers, Sky customers, PlusNet Customers and any other ISPs that piggyback on their fibre. So you’ve got loads of customers all wanting the same superfast speeds at the same time all using the same cabinet. This means that to make sure customers all get a half decent service, the ISPs have to limit and manage the speeds.
“We don’t like that. Our boxes are only used by Digital Region and we don’t fiddle with people’s connections, as everyone deserves the speeds they signed up for, surely?”
BTW, if you agree with that sentiment, you can join the 700-plus people who have singed Richard Brown’s petition for Ofcom to ban “up to” advertising here.